Bias Versus Discrimination - Joe Abittan

Bias Versus Discrimination

In The Book of Why Judea Pearl writes about a distinction between bias and discrimination from Peter Bickel, a statistician  from UC Berkeley. Regarding sex bias and discrimination in the workplace, Bickel carefully distinguished between bias and discrimination in a way that I find interesting. Describing his distinction Pearl writes the following:
“He [Bickel] carefully distinguishes between two terms, that in common English, are often taken as synonyms: bias and discrimination. He defines bias as a pattern of association between a particular decision and a particular sex of applicant. Note the words pattern and association. They tell us that bias is a phenomenon on rung one of the Ladder of Causation.”
Bias, Pearl explains using Bickel’s quote, is simply an observation. There is no causal mechanism at play when dealing with bias and that is why he states that it is on rung one of the Ladder of Causation. It is simply recognizing that there is a disparity, a trend, or some sort of pattern or association between two things.
Pearl continues, “on the other hand, he defines discrimination as the exercise of decision influenced by the sex of the applicant when that is immaterial to the qualification for entry. Words like exercise of decision, or influence and immaterial are redolent of causation, even if Bickel could not bring himself to utter that word in 1975. Discrimination, unlike bias, belongs on rung two or three of the Ladder of Causation.”
Discrimination is an intentional act. There is a clear causal pathway that we can posit between the outcome we observe and the actions or behaviors of individuals. In the case that Bickel used, sex disparities in work can be directly attributed to discrimination if it can be proven that immaterial considerations were the basis for not hiring women (or maybe men) for specific work. Discrimination does not happen all on its own, it happens because of something else. Bias can exist on its own. It can be caused by discrimination, but it could be caused by larger structural factors that themselves are not actively making decisions to create a situation. Biases are results, patterns, and associations we can observe. Discrimination is deliberate behavior that generates, sustains, and reinforces biases.
Motivations, Virtues, & Vices

Motivations, Virtues, & Vices

Virtues are teleological. At least the argument that Quassim Cassam puts forward in his book Vices of the Mind relies on the suggestion that our virtues are defined by their actual outcomes and results in the real world. Cassam specifically looks at epistemic vices in the mind and demonstrates that epistemic vices systematically obstruct knowledge, where epistemic virtues systematically lead to an increase in knowledge. If the outcome of a particular way of thinking is more likely to increase the generation, transmission, and retention of knowledge, then it is a virtue, but if it is more likely to hinder one or more of those aspects of knowledge, it is a vice.
From this base, Cassam argues that our motivations are also teleological. Virtues and motivations are connected, and both are understood by the ways they actually shape and influence the world. Cassam writes, “every virtue can be defined in terms of particular motivation, and the goodness of the virtue is at least partly a function of the goodness of its particular motivation.”
I think this puts us in an interesting place when it comes to our motivations and whether we think we are virtuous or not. Initially, to me, motivations felt like they would be more deontological than teleological. As though motivations would be an intrinsic quality where they were defined as good on their own and rather than in reference to their ends and the outcomes they produce. But on closer consideration I think that Cassam is correct. Certain motivations underpin certain behaviors, and behaviors can have systematic results in the real world, giving us a teleological view of our initial motivations.
As an example, Cassam quotes Oklahoma University Professor Linda Zagzebski by writing, “an open-minded person is motivated out of a delight in discovering new truths, a delight that is strong enough to outweigh the attachment to old beliefs.”  In this example, motivations associated with discovering new truths, learning, and developing more accurate views of the world lead to the virtue of open-mindedness. These motivations, like the virtue they build into, systematically lead to more knowledge, new discoveries, and ultimately better outcomes for the world. Conversely, a motivation to hold on to old beliefs, to not have to adjust ones thinking and admit one may have been wrong, serves as a base for closed-mindedness. These motivations, along with the vice of being closed-minded, systematically inhibit knowledge, discovery, and progress. From this example, with the quote from Cassam in mind, we can see that virtues, vices, and motivations are teleological, capable of being understood as having consistent, if not univariable, positive or negative outcomes in our lives. Just as we can think of something being a virtue if it generally leads to positive outcomes, we can think of our motivations as being virtuous if they too lead to positive outcomes.
When we consider the motivations we have in our lives, and if we have motivations to become virtuous people, we can think about whether our motivations will systematically lead to good outcomes for ourselves and our societies. It is possible to hold motivations that may be beneficial for us while producing negative externalities for society. We can examine our motivations just as we evaluate our virtues and vices, and try to shift toward more virtuous motivations to try to systematically increase the good we do and the knowledge we generate. Few of us are probably motivated to be closed-minded, arrogant, or to hold any other epistemic vice, but our motivations may lead to such vices, so it is important that we pick our motivations well based on the real world outcomes they can inspire.
Explanatorily Basic

Explanatorily Basic

Quassim Cassam’s book Vices of the Mind is written more for an academic audience than a popular audience, and as a result it is rather dense and dives into some specific arguments with a lot of nuance. As an example, Cassam asks whether there is one type of epistemic vice that is more basic than another, or than any other, and takes the time to explain exactly what he means when he says that a vice might be more explanatorily basic than another.
Cassam writes, “A trait X is more basic than another trait Y if X can be explained without reference to Y, but Y can’t be explained  without reference to X. In this case, X is explanatorily more basic than Y.”
Ultimately, Cassam doesn’t find any evidence that any given epistemic vice is more basic than another. Epistemic vices are something that we do, and we can characterize each epistemic vice by a patter of thought that contributes to a certain behaviors or traits that obstructs knowledge. To characterize someone with a trait that is defined by an epistemic vice is simply to say that they are someone who often engages in that pattern of thought. According to Cassam, all epistemic vices are things that we do regardless as to whether or not we would normally describe ourselves or others by a vice, and therefore there is no reason to think that one epistemic vice is more basic than another. They don’t refer to or explain each other, they instead reference patterns of behavior and thought that we can engage with regularly or in particular instances.
While this idea is a bit obscure and fairly complex to think through, I think it can be a helpful way to look at the world. I believe that systems thinking is important within organizations and within our general lives. If we observe problems or situations that could be better, we should look for solutions and new structures that would improve the problems we see. In order to do that well, we should have a way of identifying root causes. We should approach not just the symptoms of the problems we see, but approach the overall structure to understand what causes the negative things we wish to prevent or avoid. Cassam’s definition for what would make an epistemic vice more explanatorily basic than another is part of a systemic and structural approach to the kind of problem solving that I would advocate for.
A root cause should be more explanatorily basic than the negative aspects that flow from it. When approaching a problem or a decision, we should ask whether the things we are focused on can be explained directly, or if they can only be explained by reference to other factors. If we can explain them without having to reference other problems that contribute to them, then we may have identified the root cause that we are after. Making a change at that point should influence downstream actions and consequences, helping adjust the structure of the system that lead to the issue we want to solve.
Vices and Personalities

Vices & Personalities

In Vices of the Mind Quassim Cassam argues that epistemic vices are different than personality traits. He argues that we can change our behaviors and escape epistemic vices in a way that we cannot with certain aspects of our personality and who we are. This means that we can improve the way we think in order to be more rational and knowledgeable individuals.
“Wishful thinking is what a person does rather than what a person is like,” writes Cassam as an example of a difference between a vice and a personality. We can generally be happy and optimistic people or we can generally be negative and pessimistic, and though I have not studied it, my understanding is that to some extent our genes can influence our general outlook and disposition on life. Nevertheless, we can still engage in epistemic vices like wishful thinking even if we are normally more of an optimist or pessimist. Distinguishing between epistemic vices that are more in our control than personality traits is helpful to see how we can make adjustments in our thinking to improve our knowledge.
To me, the distinction is similar to the difference between the Spanish verbs of estar and ser. Estar is used to describe states of things that change. You would use it to say I am happy today, the house is in good condition, or the vase is broken. Ser captures essential elements of something. You would use it to describe yourself as tall, to say that the house is large, or to describe a vase as blue.
We can generally be positive people, generally excited to talk to strangers, or we can prefer familiar routines rather than unknown situations. But regardless of these essential characteristics, there can be patterns of thinking that we engage in, like wishful thinking. Wishful thinking is a pattern of thought that assumes the best outcomes, discredits information that contradicts our hopes, and ignores the pursuit of additional information that might change our mind. It is a behavior that obstructs knowledge, and is also a behavior we can escape through practice and recognition.
The other epistemic vices that Cassam highlights are similar to wishful thinking. They are behaviors and patterns of thought that we generally have more control over than whether we have a sunny disposition toward life. Being behaviors that obstruct knowledge, they are behaviors that we can and should strive to avoid in order to facilitate knowledge, improve our behaviors and decision-making, and ultimately strengthen the choices in life that we make.
Incentives for Environmentally Responsible Markets

Incentives for Environmentally Responsible Markets

When it comes to environmental issues, no single actor is completely to blame, and that means no single actor can make the necessary changes to prevent catastrophic climate change. This means we can’t put all the weight on governments to take actions to change the course of our climate future, and we can’t blame individual actors either. We have to think about economies, polities, and incentive structures.

 

In their book Nudge, economists Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler look at what this means for markets and regulation as we try to find sustainable paths. They write, “markets are a big part of this system, and for all their virtues, they face two problems that contribute to environmental problems. First, incentives are not properly aligned. If you engage in environmentally costly behavior next year, through consumption choices, you will probably pay nothing for the environmental harms that you inflict. This is what is often called a tragedy of the commons.”

 

One reason markets bear some of the blame and responsibility for the climate change crisis is because market incentives can produce externalities that are hard to correct. Climate change mitigation strategies, such as research and development of more fuel efficient vehicles and technologies, are expensive, and the costs of climate change are far off. Market actors, both consumers and producers, don’t have proper incentives to make the costly changes today that would reduce the future costs of continued climate change.

 

A heavy handed approach to our climate change crisis would be for governments to step in with dramatic regulation – eliminating fossil fuel vehicles, setting almost unattainably high energy efficiency standards for furnaces and dishwashers, and limiting air travel. Such an approach, however, might anger the population and ruin any support for climate mitigation measures, making the crisis even more dire. I don’t think many credible people really support heavy handed government action, even if they do favor regulation which comes close to being as extreme as the examples I mentioned. Sunstein and Thaler’s suggestion of improved incentives to address failures in markets and change behaviors has advantages over heavy handed regulation. The authors write, “incentive-based approaches are more efficient and more effective, and they also increase freedom of choice.”

 

To some extent, regulation looks at a problem and asks what the most effective way to stop the problem is if everyone is acting rational. An incentives-based approach asks what behaviors need to be changed, and what existing forces encourage the negative behaviors and discourage changes toward better behaviors. Taxes, independent certifications, and public shaming can be useful incentives to get individuals, groups, and companies to make changes. I predict that in 10-15 years people who are not yet driving electric cars will start to be shamed for continuing to drive inefficient gas guzzlers (unfortunately this probably means people with low incomes will be shamed for not being able to afford a new car). In the US, we have tried to introduce taxes on carbon output, but have not been successful. Taxing energy consumption in terms of carbon output changes the incentives companies have with regard to negative environmental externalities form energy and resource consumption. And independent certification boards, like the one behind the EnergyStar label, can continue to play an important role in encouraging technological development of more efficient appliances. The incentives approach might seem less direct, slower, and less certain to work, but in many areas, not just climate change, we need broad public support to make changes, especially when the costs are high up front. This requires that we understand incentives and think about ways to change incentive structures. Nudges such as the ones I mentioned may work better than full government intervention if people are not acting fully rational, which is usually the case for most of us. Nudges can get us to change behaviors while believing that we are making choices for ourselves, rather than having choices forced on us by an outside authority.
Can We Employ Simple Health Nudges?

Can We Employ Simple Health Nudges?

In their book Nudge, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler write, “Libertarian paternalists see countless opportunities for improving people’s health. Social influences could obviously be enlisted: if most people think that most people are starting to avoid unhealthy foods, or to exercise, more people will avoid unhealthy foods and will exercise.” The book was published in 2008, and while the authors imagined many ways in which nudges could make a big impact for the health of individuals and populations, few nudges seem to be making an impact in the US today. The lack of successful nudges, and the health challenges of the last few years raise the question, can we employ simple health nudges to solve our problems?

 

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us how hard it is to adopt simple healthcare practices in the United States. Nudges, like signs, reminders, and commercials about preventing airborne transmission of the virus through the use of masks doesn’t seem to be as effective as we would like. It has often taken mask mandates and fines for business to compel people to actually wear masks. Nudges, in the case of encouraging mask wearing in the face of a deadly pandemic and highly transmissible disease seemed to be ineffective.

 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, two public health ideas that were being tested were limiting the size of sodas that people could purchase at restaurants and convenience stores and taxing sugary drinks. I’m not sure if Sunstein and Thaler would consider bans on overly large soda cups or taxes on sugary beverages as nudges, but I think they count. No one was limiting the number of sodas an individual could buy, and the taxes on sugary drinks were very low. The idea behind each measure was to marginally reduce some sugary beverage consumption, hopefully helping people reduce their caloric intake and improve their dental health. But even these small measures were met with fierce backlash. Very few people would really be impacted by the limited sizes of large soda cups, and few people would meaningfully feel the price of the soda taxes, but both measures were attacked and only a few places were actually able to pass such measures. If such limited actions are met with such strong resistance, then it doesn’t seem like we can rely on nudges that will meaningfully move people toward more healthy lives.

 

Sunstein and Thaler also write about social influencers as being important in nudging people toward diets and exercise, but in the years since 2008, social influencers have been less successful at encouraging diets than they have been at getting people to take cool pictures wearing athleisure wear. Body positivity movements have possibly encouraged people to be more accepting of non-model/Avenger body shapes, rather than encouraging them to spend more time at the gym and eat more salads. I think it is a healthy movement, but the nudge of body positivity movements are not tied to the same health goals that are written about in the book. From my perspective, it seems that there are larger structural issues that shape and limit our exercising and influence our diets beyond what nudges can hope to influence.

 

While I wish we could employ simple health nudges to improve individual and population health, I don’t think it is possible. We have trouble communicating the effectiveness of masks and encouraging people to wear masks during a global pandemic, and people will fight against marginal measures to limit soda consumption. Encouraging more exercise and getting people to eat healthier requires action beyond what a nudge can do, and require real structural changes to the systems and incentives that create our current health problems. Beyond nudges, we need larger creative solutions that will truly change people’s behavior.
Signaling Fairness with Altruistic Punishment

Maintaining the Rules of Fairness with Signaling and Altruistic Punishment

Society is held together by many unspoken rules of fairness, and maintaining rules of fairness is messy but rewarding work. We don’t just advocate for fairness in our own lives, but will go out of our way to call out unfairness when we see it hampering the lives of others. We will protest, march in the streets, and post outraged messages on social media to call out the unfairness we see in the world, even if we are not directly affected by it or even stand to gain by an unfair status quo.

 

Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking Fast and Slow, shares some research studying our efforts to maintain the rules of fairness and why we are so drawn to it. He writes, “Remarkably, altruistic punishment is accompanied by increased activity in the pleasure centers of the brain. It appears that maintaining the social order and the rules of fairness in this fashion is its own reward.”

 

This idea reminds me of Robin Hanson’s book The Elephant in the Brain, where Hanson suggests a staggering amount of human behavior is little more than signaling. Much of what we do is not about the high-minded rational that we attach to our actions. Much of what we do is about something else, and our stated rationales are little more than pretext and excuses. Altruistic punishment, or going out of our way to inflicting some sort of punishment (verbal reprimands, loss of a job, or imprisonment) is not necessarily about the person who was treated unfairly or the person who was being unfair to others. It is quite plausibly more about our own pleasure, and about the maintenance or establishment of a social order that we presumably will benefit from, and about signaling to the rest of society that are someone who believes in the rules and will adhere to strict moral principles.

 

Troublingly, Kahneman continues, “Altruistic punishment could well be the glue that holds societies together. However, our brains are not designed to reward generosity as reliably as they punish meanness. Here again, we find a marked asymmetry between losses and gains.”

 

The second part of Kahneman’s quote is referring to biases in our mental thinking, connecting our meanness or niceness toward others with our tendency toward loss aversion. Losses have a bigger mental impact on us than gains. We might not be consciously aware of this, but our actions – our willingness to inflict losses on others and our reluctance to endow gains on others – seems to reflect this mental bias. We are creating social order by threatening others with loss of social standing at all times, but only with minimal hope of gaining and improving social standing. Going back to the Hansonian framework from earlier, this makes sense. A gain in social status for another person is to some extent a loss to ourselves. Maintaining the social order involves maintaining or improving our relative social position. Tearing someone down signals to our allies that we are a valuable team member fighting on the right side, but lifting someone else up only diminishes our relative standing to them (unless they are the leader who we want to signal our alliance with). Kahneman’s quote, when viewed through Robin Hanson’s perspective, is quite troubling for how our social order is built and maintained.
Subjective Gains and Losses

Subjective Gains and Losses

“Outcomes that are better than the reference points are gains. Below the reference point they are losses.”

 

Daniel Kahneman writes extensively about our subjective experiences of the world in his book Thinking Fast and Slow and about how those subjective experiences can have very serious consequences in our decisions, political stances, and beliefs about the world. One area he focuses on are reference points, our baseline beliefs and expectations about the world. As it turns out, our expectations can influence whether we think things are going well or going poorly, regardless of what the actual outcomes are. On top of that, we will make adjustments to our behavior based on what we expect in regard to those outcomes.

 

Kahneman continues, “When directly compared or weighted against each other, losses loom larger than gains. This asymmetry between the power of positive and negative expectations or experiences has an evolutionary history. Organisms that treat threats as more urgent than opportunities have a better chance to survive and reproduce.”

 

Without diving into the evolutionary psychology component of Kahneman’s quote (something that I normally would love to do) I want to focus on how complex our reality and decision making becomes when we predict outcomes, shape our behavior in response to those predictions, and bias those predictions based on personal reference points.

 

In the United States, two major economic indicators that are used by banks, economists, and the media for deciding whether we have a good economy or a poor economy are GDP growth and interest rates. Both of these measures are represented as percentages, both have specific targets that we have decided are good, and from both follow a set of decisions that we hope will improve the numbers in the direction we want to see. What is interesting, is that we have reference points for the numbers in terms of what percentages we believe reflect a strong and growing economy, and our subjective experience of the economy can be changed by those outcomes.

 

A 1% increase in GDP growth is growth in overall GDP, but to an economist, that growth is abysmal, and actions need to be taken to get that growth rate closer to 3 to 4%. At the same time, if expectations for GDP growth are only .8% and we hit the same 1% outcome, we might be very happy. In both situations, our decisions and behaviors might change based on the delta from our expected reference point and the final reference point. A gain can feel like a gain, but it can similarly feel like a loss depending on where exactly we placed our reference point.

 

Interest rates reflect similar dynamics, and might be even more complicated by more clear competing interests and desires in terms of interest rates. Banks might want to see higher interest rates, to earn more money, while people taking out loans may love the low interest rates. A 2% interest rate might feel like a huge loss to one entity, while simultaneously feel like a gain to another.

 

This creates strange competitive dynamics, because our brains hate losses. We generally need an expected or realized gain to be 2 times larger than a potential or realized loss before we will risk money or accept an outcome. If we have a certain reference point in mind for the outcome we want or would be happy with, we may need to see a large skew in a positive direction for us to be happy, while even a minor loss will feel disastrous.  (At this very moment in the United States this is what is taking place with the presidential election. Several journalists have noted that in December of 2019, the Democrats would be thrilled with the election outcome we have today, but many adjusted their reference point to a Biden landslide win, so a close win feels like a tragic loss – and somewhat of a win for Trump).

 

Reference points feel like a simple idea, but what I hope this post shows is that they can be hugely consequential, and incredibly complex, especially when we have multiple actors with multiple reference points all interacting on small and large issues. Choose your reference point carefully, and try to recognize when you are operating with a certain refence point in mind and be willing to adjust or discard it when necessary. Don’t let a win get wiped away because it ended up being slightly smaller than your reference point expectation.

Norms and Productive Coordination

In my previous post I wrote about wasteful competition that occurs between animals within the same species, including us humans. To try to be impressive, we do a lot of things that are relatively wasteful. We might spend hours and hours focusing on developing a single skill, some animals will spend lots of time building an impressive dwelling, and some animals grow brightly colored plumage that puts them at risk of being seen by prey and requires energy to maintain. All of these examples are things that are done to impress others, attract a mate, and pass along our genes.

 

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson wrote about this phenomenon in The Elephant in the Brain, and they also wrote about a phenomenon that goes in the other direction, productive coordination. The authors write, “humans are different. Unlike the rest of nature, we can sometimes see ahead and coordinate to avoid unnecessary competition. This is one of our species’ super powers – that we’re occasionally able to turn wasteful competition into productive cooperation.”

 

The method that we follow to get to productive cooperation the authors call norms. We are all familiar with norms and know what they are, even if we don’t recognize most of the norms around us and can’t perfectly define what norms are. Rules are the laws, guidelines, and standards that we follow in our day to day lives. Some are written down and formalized. Some have strict and explicit penalties if violated, and some are unwritten, a bit fuzzy, and sometimes don’t include obvious consequences when violated.

 

I find norms interesting in the context of Simler and Hanson’s book because they show the ways we get to well functioning societies with fewer costly and wasteful externalities from our signaling and self-interested behaviors. Norms create a way for us to compete with each other without having to go to war with every person who might have a higher status, greater wealth, or more social and political power than we have. Many norms help all of us, as a group, function a bit better together even if they get in the way of our individual self-interest from time to time. In many ways, norms are what create the elephant in the brain.

 

The idea that our self-interest is constantly at work, hiding in plain sight and influencing our behavior while being consciously ignored comes about because of norms. We have many unwritten rules against openly bragging about ourselves and against openly disregarding others in the pursuit of our self-interest. If we did not have norms that made us feel guilty, that caused people to look down upon us, and that isolated us socially when we bulldozed our way toward the things we wanted, then we would have no reason to hide our self-interested motives and we would openly and directly compete for the things we want. Norms shape our lives by defining acceptable behaviors, and they limit our direct pursuit of our self-interest to cut out some wasteful and damaging behaviors while pushing us to be more cooperative and peaceful.

The Price of Friendship

The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson suggests that our self-interest drives a lot more of our behavior than we would like to admit. No matter what we are doing or what we are up to, part of our brain is active in looking at how we can maximize the world in our own interest. It isn’t always pretty, but it is constantly happening and if we are not aware of it or choose not to believe that we are driven by self-interest, we will continually be frustrated by the world and confused by our actions and the actions of others.

 

Friendship is one of the areas where Hanson and Simler find our self-interest acting in a way we would rather not think about. When we learn new things, build up skills, and gain new social connections, we make ourselves a better potential friend for other people. The more friends and allies we have, the more likely we will gain some sort of social assistance that will eventually help us in a self-interested way. This part of us likely originated when we lived in small political tribes with only a handful of potential mates. In order for our ancestors to be selected, they had to show they had something valuable to offer the tribe, and they had to be in high enough regard socially to be an acceptable mate. Simler and Hanson ask what happens if we look at friendships through a zero-sum lens, as our minds tend to do, where we rank everyone we interact with and apply some type of value to each person’s time and friendship. They write,

 

“Everyone, with an eye toward raising their price [Blog Author’s Note: meaning the value of their friendship], strives to make themselves more attractive as a friend or associate–by learning new skills, acquiring more and better tools, and polishing their charms.
Now, our competitions for prestige often produce positive side effects such as art, science, and technological innovation. But the prestige-seeking itself is more nearly a zero-sum game, which helps explain why we sometimes feel pangs of envy at even a close friend’s success.”

 

The author’s suggest that friendship is as much a selfish phenomenon as it can be an altruistic and genuine kind social phenomenon. We constantly try to raise our own status, so that we can count as (at least) allies and equals among people who are well connected, have resources, and can help us find additional allies or potential mates. We always want to be one step ahead in the social hierarchy, and as a result, when someone else’s status rises relative to us, even if we stay at the same level, we feel that our status is less impressive relative to them and we feel a bit jealous. All of this paints a complex picture of our interactions and shows that we can never turn off our own self-interest, even when we are participating in ways that can seem as if they are about more than just ourselves. All the things we do to improve ourselves and world are ultimately a bit self-serving in helping us have some type of future advantage or some type of advantage that helps us pass our genes along.